Will I Ever See Her Warm, Smiling Face Again? Ruminations on the Possibility of a Naturalistic Afterlife


Two months ago I wrote an about the scientific plausibility of life after death. Namely, because if one accepts that we do not have souls and are simply atoms put together in a specific way, it will almost certainly become technologically possible in the future to assemble atoms into that specific configuration again (if desired).

This assumes you have a complete description, down to a subatomic level of detail, of the person you wish to re-create of course. That’s not an impassable barrier to this proposal however, on the contrary that’s where it gets really interesting.

If it is possible in principle to perfectly extrapolate future states of an indeterminately large set of particles based on their current positions and velocities (aka determinism), it is also possible to extrapolate backwards.

So if you had the means to map out extremely large volumes down to a subatomic level of detail — say, the entire solar system — you could “rewind” it, extrapolating backwards from the current position, velocity and other properties of all the constituent particles to any point in time…for example, when someone you care about was alive. You then have the information necessary to reconstitute them if you had the ability to 3D print stuff at the necessary level of detail.

This is all much easier if simulationism is true because if it’s all in software already, you don’t need the ability to scan such large volumes so perfectly, there already exists somewhere in the simulation back end a record of what every particle was doing between big bang and heat death. In which case you can just scrub back in the timeline to find the configuration of atoms (person) you want.

But even if this is a real universe, the technological capability to forensically recreate past states of matter, even on the scale of planets or solar systems, is foreseeable and does not violate known physics.

What cannot be known is whether whoever runs the sim/possesses that technology will have the motivation to reconstitute all deceased intelligent life ever to exist.

If we’re in a simulation it would cost very little to do so, as exponential population growth means more people are alive today than have existed in history, so the number is actually very manageable.

And their idyllic paradise habitat does not need to be as large or convincingly realistic as the universe since you no longer need them to believe they are not in a sim.

What encourages me is that the best means of predicting what technologies will exist is #1. is it physically possible? and #2. do lots of people badly want it? If yes to 1 and 2, probably it will exist some day.

Technology is just putting matter together in a way that accomplishes something you want it to. If it is possible to put atoms together into a person, and enough people want that badly enough (who doesn’t want their dead loved ones back?) then it will be achieved some day.

In the simulationist model, it really is ‘you’. They don’t recreate you using different atoms. They actually rewind time in the sim to get you. Software is software.

But critically, it’s possible to recreate long deceased persons either way, whether the universe is a simulation or an actual universe. It’s just easier if it’s simulated.

That’s why it’s possible from a deterministic, materialist standpoint for an afterlife to exist. This is something I used to discuss at length with Laura. It brought her great comfort with respect to the death of her close friend Bethany by suicide, the largest single causal factor in Laura’s suicide.

That makes me nervous. Because before, I had no horse in the race. I had no skin in the game, to emotionally bias me towards belief in this concept. I could be somewhat objective about it and concluded that on its own merits, it was more likely to be true than not.

That’s no longer the case. With Laura gone my objectivity is gone too. I now have a strong desire in my heart to see her again which makes it impossible for me to consider a concept like this in a dispassionate and unbiased way.

Does that make it untrue? Does it even make it less likely to be true? I don’t think so, but it sure feels that way. It feels like I can’t trust myself to evaluate its probability of being correct without my heart putting pressure on me to make a leap of faith that can’t be justified.

It makes sense for me of why many find solace in supernatural, religious accounts of life after death. They never brought me the same comfort, because there was no clear way for it to actually work. We are not spirits, we are our brains. I cannot find solace in something which seems unlikely to be true. False hope is worse than none.

I can accept it if she is truly, irretrievably gone. The idea of permanent death no longer pushes my buttons. Those buttons were hammered flat when I was an atheist. I don’t take for granted the idea that we may live again, and it’s not necessary for me to live a fulfilled life.

Laura was the same way. She made her peace with the idea of death a long time ago. She did not die believing that she was certain to see Bethany again, on the other side of that terrible black curtain (or brick wall). She died simply wanting to escape the horror of a world without Bethany in it.

“Take care not to fool yourself, because you are the easiest one for you to fool”, said Richard Feynman. Clever guy. That was an important lesson for me. That if I wanted to get at real truth, not just ideas which appeal to me and are defensible in argument, I have to be as viciously critical of my own reasoning as an opponent would be.

Otherwise I would write myself blank checks to believe certain falsehoods for the sake of my own comfort. I don’t want that type of comfort. A beautiful lie is not good enough for me. I want the truth, whether beautiful or ugly.

I am not married to pessimism though, I will not turn away from an apparent truth just because it seems too good to be true, just as I won’t turn away from an apparent truth because it is too horrible to accept.

The truth may be better, not worse, than any of us suspected. After so many years of mentally preparing myself to accept oblivion, an afterlife would in some ways be an even harder pill to swallow.

There is still that persistent voice of self-skepticism, though. The human brain is marvelously powerful at rationalization. It exists to solve the problems facing the human organism’s survival.

What if that’s what I’m doing now? What if all this is simply my brain rationalizing away its own suffering? How could I make that determination about myself impartially?

That’s what keeps me from believing with any real certainty that I will see her again. I am satisfied only that it is possible, based on foreseeable technological improvements and the currently known laws of physics. For all I know, I’ve only discovered the crudest, most difficult way to do it.

After all, it’s not like we’re still flying around in Wright Brothers style biplanes. They discovered the solution to heavier than air flight, but we’ve found better and better ways to do it since then.

Maybe the method of resurrection I’ve described here is like the earliest flying machines, in that respect. Wrong only in the sense that better methods will quickly replace it.

The other thing that troubles me is, while I feel it can be safely assumed that the technological capability to resurrect long deceased persons will exist, what can possibly be known about the motives of whoever (or whatever) will be in possession of that technology?

What if they are not benevolent? What if they bring us back only to torture us, for amusement purposes? That seems unlikely, as it’s been repeatedly shown by game theorists that competition between individuals/groups over long periods eventually results in the domination of pro-social groups over anti-social ones.

Basically unless there’s one individual or group that is vastly more powerful than the rest, and unfortunately for them, he/it’s determined to be sadistic, then over the long haul you eventually wind up with more and more gentle, civilized groups on average (which mirrors the development of human civilizations on Earth, up to the present day, small anomalies like North Korea notwithstanding)

This convinces me that if ever there is a single over-arching, dominant hegemonic power in the universe, it will be more or less good natured. Why it is that we should expect a single hegemonic power to one day dominate the universe is a topic explored here, and here.

This is still no guarantee of anything. No reasonable person believes total certainty of any idea is possible. I can say with some confidence that there will someday exist the technological means to resurrect us, if whoever controls that technology desires it. I can say we are more likely to be in a simulation than not, which makes reviving the long deceased much easier.

Finally I can say with about the same degree of confidence that any power sufficiently advanced to possess that technology is more likely to be benign than malicious. All together, this is why it will not surprise me if I wake up someplace pleasant after I die. I will have at least some inkling of how it was achieved, by whom, and why.

I don’t imagine I’ll much care about any of that, if indeed there is an afterlife. The only thing on my mind at that point will be to find Laura. To scold her, first, for leaving us all behind before her time.

…But then to rejoice that I can finally see her again. Touch her face, hear her laughter and mock the black curtain of death which I once feared had separated us forever.

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